Thursday, April 29, 2010

I (Don't) Want My HGTV!

I’m ditching the remote. I’m pulling the plug on HGTV and breaking away from browsing the magazine racks. I have tossed too much money to publishers of home improvement “guides” that charge ridiculous cover prices for useless fluff. I’ve wasted too many hours in front of the tube in search of inspiration for our renovations only to find myself frustrated and hapless, so I’m calling it quits on consumer design theory.

I’m tired of seeing cavernous kitchens that are termed “small space,” and I cannot watch one minute more of would-be home buyers traipsing around far-flung locales flinging around $700,000 budgets for vacation homes they’ll visit for a few weeks a year. So-called “Tuscany style” books, *so* aren’t.

Magazines show lovely before-and-after photos, but when you’re dealing with a house that is mere decades old and giving it a makeover, and you have a super-sized home improvement store down the street, it’s fairly easy to be a do-it-yourselfer. This Old House? HA!

Shows that promise design solutions make me laugh. Sure! Anyone can remodel when you’re pulling out wafer-thin drywall, slapping up a coat of latex, and scattering advertiser-sponsored accessories about liberally. I say, try taking a 300-year old stone building cantilevered onto a mountain with walls that are three feet thick and an electrical system that is roughly one generation removed from Edison…then find me and we’ll talk.

We’re discovering why big home-improvement stores aren’t…uh, big in Italy. Any small undertaking has the potential to become a major ordeal. This is a bit tough for Bryan, an avowed putterer and competent DIYer.

I carried home some Italian magazines which had fabulous photos and ideas, and were well qualified to offer suggestions on ancient structures and their unique qualities, but they suffered unfortunate bloody deaths in my suitcase. The sole survivor was the one I purchased for the cantina restoration, a project we won’t be tackling for quite some time.

To make the place habitable, at least to a camping level, we need a kitchen. Houses in Italy, if you don’t already know, come bare. We’re talking no fixtures, no kitchen cupboards, no sink, buck nekkid bare. One dusty bulb hangs from a wire in the living area as a lone light source. We are luckier than some: we have functional bathroom fixtures and a roof. Many homes we looked at contained neither.

Lovely Old-World Kitchen...would love to find one of these!

I wasn’t thrilled with the previous owner’s placement of the kitchen and gray-tiled walls. I have been weighing the idea of moving it to the other side of the large living space. I explained my thought to our engineer-slash-contractor friend who assured me it was doable. All I’d have to do would be to jackhammer up the floor the entire length of the room and plumb in piping, then jackhammer some more to create a drainage system, make a trench through the stone wall to transfer electrical wires, and then wrap a gas line around the outside of the building to that part of the house. Then, of course, find tiles that match the flooring to fix the jack-hammered parts or else tear out all the tiles and redo the entire pavement for the room. No problem.

I think now the kitchen may remain where it currently rests. But the odd-sized space, the fireplace, the uneven walls, and weird window placements present challenges. I’ve sought solutions, but so far they’ve eluded me. All the kitchen designs here are for enormous rooms with an acre of countertop and a six-burner pro-style stove. In short, they’re bigger than my entire allotted living-dining-kitchen space.

Italian design kitchen sites are fabulously geared toward small spaces, but are also frequently, fabulously modern. I briefly toyed with going sleek and gleamy as a contrast to the antique character of the place, but then decided that I’d prefer to keep it rustic. Finding the items and figuring out how to make them fit in the limited space is another matter. The visions pirouette in my head but whether they’ll work in real life is anyone’s guess.

But first things first. Doors. Our first simple project is to replace the two sets of decayed French doors that lead to balconies from the living room and bedroom. Alas, “simple” is such a relative word. The project is going to involve stone masons and wood workers. A door cannot simply be purchased and installed. There are no standard, pre-fab sizes ready and waiting at Lowe’s. It has to be specially made to fit the opening. Rotted lintels and jambs must be removed. The stone must be repaired after their removal. New lintels and jambs must be installed. Then the doors that have been made just for our piccola casa can be hung. Except. The thresholds need work, too. More stone masonry.

It probably would all be fairly simple and straight-forward if we were there, but communicating back and forth by email and phone calls is slow and tedious. I’ll be traveling there shortly but we needed to the get the ball rolling: the woodworker needed to order the materials so he can make the doors. The stone mason had to meet with him in case the stone work would change the dimensions of the openings. Photos, emails, and misunderstandings have abounded. It’s a clumsy ballet played out in work boots and cyberspace.

If HGTV wants some compelling restoration viewing, this would do nicely, I think. Much more challenging than most of the “reality” shows I’ve turned off. But alas, they have no programs like “Design on a Euro-Dime” or “Rustic Old World Kitchens in the Old World” or “Generation Renovation: The Medieval Edition”, so I’ll be tuning out.


LindyLouMac said...

It sounds like you should ignore all the kitchen designers and build your own in keeping, something like the picture you posted. I empathise with you as we have spent the last year renovating our house.

Miss Footloose said...

Valerie, we've been watching House Hunters International on HGTV lately, and I feel your pain! People shopping for a house with a budget of a million bucks and still can't quite find what they like . . .

The old rustic case in Italy have a lot more character than anything new, but the way you descibe it, the restauration can be a nightmare, especially of you're on the other side of the ocean and you don't have a million to spare...

Looking forward to hearing more!

Dana said...

Good luck to you in your attempts to accomplish this from afar. A few years ago we purchased a "shell" of house and then took a year to oversee the finishing. . . it proved to be quite a challenge, and we lived 10 kilometers away from the new property!

carol said...

Oh Valerie,
What an eye-crossing, head-spinning tale you tell...makes our Calabrian balcony repair job last summer seem like a day at the beach.You really must get here to manage things in person.

Valerie said...

Lindy - Definitely! We just hoped to have some pictures to illustrate what is rattling around in our heads, to maybe convey it more clearly.

Miss Footloose - Isn't that show unreal? Paleez! We do prefer the rustic and I'll be scouring flea markets and asking around town about grannies with cantinas full of cast-offs they might want to sell. It's not a nightmare, just a bit challenging. But then, we're not undertaking any major rehauls. I couldn't imagine!

Dana - So you do understand! Thanks.

Carol - It's not *that* bad! We don't family interference to deal with like you did. But will be much easier if I'm there. The main frustration is the lack of examples. After flipping through a few kitchens magazines we realized that most of the kitchens they feature look pretty much alike.

marybeth said...

Ciao, bella,
the thing to keep in mind is that when you're done, you will have you OWN home in ITALY!!! How many people can say that? And what a story you will have to tell! Maybe even a book...

Perhaps with that vision ahead of you, you can better enjoy the process...

tanti abbracci,

travelingsuep said...

What a great post, and thank you for being so realistic.

I am also attempting to make an older property livable, also without the big budget (actually virtually no budget). Luckily I can't get HGTV but I have wept over the glossy home restoration magazines and the quotes to do the seemingly littlest thing.

Judith in Umbria said...

Valerie, I spent 30 years as a designer in the US with a subspecialty of kitchens, since I do cook a bit. Then I came here to restore a 450 year old house and met the panoply of Italians who involve themselves in your life and every single one of them knows what should be better than you can. When I saw my builder's mother's kitchen I almost passed out. There was a moderately large room with a table, chairs and a woodstove in the corner. A door led to what would be a small walk-in closet in the US and there were stuffed all the parts of cooking they thought you shouldn't see! Squashed wasn't adequate as description. As a result, most of what she serves is cooked way ahead and themn kept in a warming drawer to dry out and lose flavor. Months later I found out they also have a dining room! It has not been used in over 20 years, however. And this man I fought constantly to make things the way I needed for them to be. Once the job was done he started traipsing potential clients through to show them his great work. I was tempted, oh so tempted.
PS/ mine is an eclectic kitchen, because cabinets and drawers do not figure in the traditional kitchen and I really do insist on them.

Anonymous said...

This has to be so frustrating for you! I remodeled my kitchen two years ago (nothing like you will be going through) and to this day, I say that I should have opened up my mouth more and stated what I wanted rather than the contractor. Get what you want. You will be the one living there in the end.

I couldn't be there much during the remodel due to work. (I had to pay for it somehow!) How do these young couples afford such big, expensive homes on TV? Most of them have kids too! I can't figure it out only that obviously went into the wrong field of work!

Best of luck. It will get done. I am sure it will be beautiful in the end. We all want to see lots of pictures. Best of luck to you as you start one of the most stressful periods of your life. Hang in there!

lakeviewer said...

We're looking forward to learning more. HGTV is useless without the contractors and the materials at your fingertips.

Michelle | Bleeding Espresso said...

I love some of these designs:

I found them in an ad in "Cose di Casa," my favorite Italian design magazine :)

Anonymous said...

Look at They have partner show rooms throughout Italia and are offering large discounts at the present time. They also have contemporary and traditional.

Valerie said...

Marybeth - So true! It's the distance that makes it frustrating! Each step brings another story to tell.

Sue - We can commiserate throughout our respective projects! Our restoration budget is very low, too. We basically want to get the place habitable and then do as much as we can ourselves. It will be slow going, though.

Judith - Oh, the tales you have to tell! This one is incredible...cram the kitchen out of sight? In Italy? Where food is all-important? Eclectic is good. We're fortunate, our ingegnere is a friend and he wants to clarify over and over to make sure we all are on the same page, and gives in to our "quirks" such as not wanting to "straighten out" the 300-year old walls that are so appealingly irregular.

Anon - Thanks. Like I said, the most frustrating part is not being there for the whole process, but we're not undertaking major projects. It's weird looking at American kitchen magazines while trying to redo one in Italy, they're polar opposites. American kitchens are enormous with tons of counter and cupboard space and professional-style appliances, despite the lack of cooking that actually goes on in many households, while Italian kitchens are cramped and lacking in adequate workspace, but they turn out feasts for 20 in them!

Lakeviewer - So true!

Michelle - Thanks for the link. Cose di Casa is a fave of mine, too. In fact, it was one of the suitcase victims.

Anon. - Thanks. They have beautiful kitchens that look like very high quality, but most are US-style (huge!) None that would work in our very small space. I really want to go very rustic. I'll be scouring mercati usati and looking for antique fairs.

Valerie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Louise at Abbastanza Buono said...

Whatever you do be sure to have enough work space. Our little Italian kitchen is built into a corner with the sink, one drawer, then the corner and the stove. It is all of two linear feet (plus the corner area) of counter space. I wish I had arranged things differently even if it meant moving water and electricity a short ways. I think IKEA is great for just about everything and they do have some sort-of rustic designs. Have also gotten good ideas cruising through Mercatone Uno. Both have "cheap" stuff but near as I can tell it is what most Italians end up with. We are in the process of moving houses here and I dream of more counter space and no trave a vista. ;-) In boca la lupo!